Will this cheerleader be the smartest person at the Super Bowl?

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Kelly Bennion, a cheerleader for the New England Patriots, is also a PhD candidate in neuroscience. She is a member of the Science Cheerleaders, a group based in Philadelphia that encourages girls to pursue science careers.

When the New England Patriots face the Seattle Seahawks this Sunday, the smartest person on the gridiron may be a cheerleader.

Kelly Bennion, 26, has danced for the Pats for the past two seasons. At the same time, she’s been pursuing a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience and teaching psychology and neuroscience to undergrads. Her impressive resume includes bachelor’s degrees in psychology and Spanish from Middlebury College and a master’s in education from Harvard.

So it figures the vivacious Arizona native is a member of the Science Cheerleaders, the Philadelphia-based organization that encourages girls to pursue careers in science and engineering. Science Cheerleader, which counts about 250 current and former cheerleaders as members, was founded in 2009 by former 76ers cheerleader Darlene Cavalier.

As part of her Science Cheerleader duties, Bennion collected bacteria last year from Gillette Stadium (Bacillus amyloliquefaciens, if you must know) to be blasted into orbit as part of a “microbiome Olympics” aboard the International Space Station. (The final results are in.)

Bennion won’t be the only one on the sidelines this Sunday to mix beauty, brains, and boosterism. Ten others on the Pats’ squad -- and at least three of the Seahawks’ Sea-Gals -- are also pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Sunday’s matchup in Phoenix will be Bennion’s first Super Bowl.

With the help of two Philadelphia-area 9-year-old girls, Betsy and Nora, we asked Bennion a few questions about her life in the labs and on the football field.  

You’re a scientist, so why would you want to be a cheerleader?

It’s what I do to release stress. I also love seeing the other girls on the team because they’re my best friends. It’s also great because we do workouts at every practice. So instead of going to the gym, I go to the stadium.

How did you become a cheerleader for the Patriots?

I’ve wanted to dance since I was 7. I started with jazz and tap. I later studied at the Arizona Ballet School; that’s what I attribute all my technical skill to. I had cheered in high school, but prior to 2011, I hadn’t done that much.

I went to Boston for graduate school and while I was working on my master’s, I danced for the Harvard Crimson Dance Team and got to travel to Disney World.

The week I turned in my master’s thesis, I saw there were tryouts for the Patriots [cheerleading squad]. So I rewarded myself by going to the audition. I didn’t think about how my life would change! I wanted to dance for the day. I ended up making the team.

How did you get involved with Science Cheerleaders?

Darlene contacted my coach shortly after I became a cheerleader to see which girls were pursuing careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. When she asked me to join, I said “Absolutely, yes!”

Besides getting kids interested in science, what do Science Cheerleaders do?

For cheerleaders, it works to combat the negative stereotype that they’re only pretty faces. It shows that cheerleaders are very hard-working and are pursuing advanced educations in engineering, math, biology and other great things.

It also shows that scientists are not always the stereotypically nerdy people who can’t manage to hold a normal conversation. Scientists are people too, and they can have hobbies. It works nicely from both sides.

Does cheering pay?

We get a stipend.

Does cheering ever get in the way of your doing science?

I think you can do both. With cheering, at some point, I’ll just be too old. It will be too physically demanding. There’s a four-year max for being a Patriots cheerleader. But I’ll always be able to be a scientist.

Do other Patriots cheerleaders lead similar lives?

We all have full-time or part-time jobs or are students. That’s a requirement to get selected for the squad. Everyone, of course, is very committed to a being a Pats cheerleader and has great dance ability and enjoys making community appearances. If there’s a girl who wants to join who does nothing besides cheering, that’s a red flag. Our coach wants someone who is a well-rounded person. She does a good job of picking girls who not only perform well on the field, but are good public speakers and get along with everyone.

How did you become interested in studying the brain?

I’ve been interested in memory for a long time. I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was 5 years old. I just couldn’t figure out what I wanted to teach.

I took some psychology in my freshman year. In my sophomore year I started working in a lab studying human memory. I found human memory fascinating, especially since I’ve always been interested in education.

And what is your Ph.D. research about?

I’m focusing on the effects of sleep on emotion and stress. Considering we spend approximately a third of our lives sleeping, I think it’s important to understand it! Sleep selectively strengthens memory, not that it boosts all memories equally. But it strengthens memories of negative experiences. If you’re held up at gunpoint, sleep might strengthen the memory for the specific characteristics of the gun, while it might leave out the other details such as the person holding gun, or the car that person drove up in or what they were wearing.

Much of what we experience is not just neutral information, but emotional. I happen to be very lucky. I got my own grant from the Department of Defense because my dissertation research has implications on PTSD, how sleep affects those negative experiences.

I’m also looking at how you can use sleep as a tool to enhance memory, how naps can be used as a tool to boost information. Data shows that you can assign some importance to whatever you’re studying and a nap will boost memory for that salient information relative to the same amount of time spent awake.

You’re so busy. How much sleep do you get?

I usually sleep around seven hours, but I’m fine with four, which is good because it’s hard to get sleep if you’re doing research on sleep! On the overnights I’m working, I have to make sure the electrodes do not fall off the subject’s scalp.

How do people react when they find out you’re also a serious scientist?

I get a few surprised comments when they learn what I do. At appearances, someone will ask, “Do you do anything besides this?” When I tell them I’m getting a Ph.D. in neuroscience, they’ll go like, “Wow!” I certainly get a variety of reactions, from some being very shocked to others feeling guilty that they asked at all.

What are you most excited about for the Super Bowl?

I’m looking forward to everything about it. All the events leading up are absolutely incredible. We’re doing a science pep rally, on Friday the 30th. I can’t imagine how exciting the game will be. The AFC championship game was beyond amazing. As the players ran out to take the field, you could feel the enormous energy of all the fans.

And I’m actually from Arizona, so it makes it incredibly meaningful. We’re staying 30 minutes from my family’s house and the University of Phoenix stadium is about an hour from there. Being at my home stadium is very special.

What advice do you have for young girls?

It’s very important you find something you’re passionate about. That can be sometimes difficult, and you don’t need to find it right away. Sometimes you’ll find it in college and sometimes after. Don’t let anything stand in your way. A lot of times people have told me, “There’s no way you can do that, be a scientist and a cheerleader!” I don’t listen to them. I feel if you’re passionate, it will make you happy. Get enough sleep, and put your mind to doing whatever you want to do and that will lead to success.

 


Contact Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or samwood@phillynews.com. Follow @samwoodiii on Twitter.

Contact the Breaking News Desk at 215-854-2443; BreakingNewsDesk@philly.com. Follow @phillynews on Twitter.

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